With huge heritage tourism potential, these must be delinked from the Indian Railways.
For some railway lines, the expression “mountain railway” is used. When using this expression, people often mean the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), the Kalka Shimla Railway (KSR) and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR). These are the most famous, best known for being recognised as Unesco World Heritage sites—DHR in 1999, KSR in 2008 and NMR in 2008. Perhaps a little less famous is the Matheran Hill Railway (MLR), whose application with Unesco is pending. Finally, there is Kangra Valley Railway and hill section (Lumding-Halflong-Badarpur) of Northeast Frontier Railway. Since all these lines aren’t in the Himalayas, “mountain railway” is a better term than “Himalayan railway”. People are fascinated by these toy trains. They bring a whiff of an era long gone, a trace of nostalgia. At the risk of annoying those from Tamil Nadu, those who love the song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from the movie Dil Se and those in love with the rack and pinion system, NMR is not in the same league as DHR, KSR or MLR. That’s because NMR is metre gauge. The real nostalgia is about narrow gauge. Technically, there are two kinds of narrow gauge—2 ft (610 mm) and 2 ft and 6 inches (762 mm). DHR and Matheran are of the 2-ft variety, while KSR and Kangra Valley are of the 2-ft-6-inches variety.
The nostalgia is even greater when you bring in steam engines. Let’s take DHR as an example, the same points apply to the others. The DHR idea goes back to 1879, when there was supposed to be a tramway company between Darjeeling and Siliguri. This didn’t work out and in 1881, it became the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Company, which was operated till 1948 by Gillanders Artbuthnot and Company. After that, it has been operated by Indian Railways (IR). If you have travelled on the “toy” train, you may have visited Ghum (Ghoom) Museum. There is a steam locomotive known as “Baby Sivok” (manufactured in 1881) which has been restored in 2000. That is fine as a museum exhibit, but it can’t really pull trains. The initial lot of steam locomotives built for DHR weren’t good enough either. They were too small and weak and these are known as A-class locomotives. DHR’s staple, until other forms of traction took over, was B-class locomotives, manufactured between 1888 and 1927. 34 of these were built. If DHR reminds you of yesteryear cine-star Rajesh Khanna romancing actress Sharmila Tagore (or more recent films), be sure that the engine used was one of these B-class locomotives.
DHR has faced several problems, competition from road transport being one. If you travel from Siliguri to Darjeeling, you aren’t likely to use the DHR. You will opt for road transport. You will choose DHR only because you want that nostalgia of a narrow gauge steam locomotive. Unfortunately, DHR doesn’t possess enough steam locomotives now. There are only eleven B-class locomotives, and not all are in working order. There was an experiment to convert two from coal-firing to oil-firing. That didn’t work, so these have to be reconverted to coal-firing. By my reckoning, only 5 of those 11 are in working order. Therefore, under normal circumstances, you won’t get a steam engine. If you travel from Siliguri (or Kurseong/Ghum) to Darjeeling, you will get a diesel locomotive. There will be steam only for the joy ride between Ghum and Darjeeling and in instances where you specifically ask for a steam charter. Note that the World Heritage status requires steam engines. Steam traction is certainly more expensive than diesel. However, since price sensitive travellers have switched to road transport, passengers on DHR are willing to pay the premium.
Why can’t DHR get more steam engines? Very few people make steam locomotives now. No one has manufactured steam locomotives in India since 1972. (Chittaranjan Locomotive Works built a metre gauge and a broad gauge locomotive then.) They’ll have to be imported and I am told such a steam locomotive costs R2 crore. But 34 were built and only 11 are with DHR. Where are the others? Only one DHR locomotive was taken out of the country. That went to an American museum and now runs on a private railway, the Beeches Light Railway. Shouldn’t it be easier to rehabilitate ones that are floating around, but aren’t in DHR’s possession? The Rewari steam-shed only seems to have metre gauge and broad gauge locomotives. Through Indian Railways Fan Club Association (IRFCA), I managed to get hold of a list compiled by Geoffrey Coward, aptly titled “Steam Survivors”. Non-working DHR locomotives are in National Railway Museum, Tipong Colliery (North Eastern Coalfields), Tindharia works, Dehradun railway station (plinthed), Lucknow railway station (plinthed), Rail Bhavan (plinthed), various workshops and DRM offices. Plinthed means they have been fixed atop a pedestal. They might still work. Tipong Colliery (near Margeritha) uses these to haul coal. But, at least, they are used. The others are museum pieces and might as well be used on DHR.
This is reminiscent of the Fairy Queen locomotive. Between 1909 and 1997, it was nothing but a museum piece. But it could be restored to working order and broke records. (It’s resting in Rewari now and the train is hauled by a much more modern locomotive produced by Chittaranjan in 1965, the one you saw in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.) However, I don’t think such things will happen as long as mountain railways are under IR control. They need to be taken out, a condition World Heritage status also requires.
The author is Member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal